On 29 April I took part in an event celebrating the life and work of Sylvia Plath hosted by Poet in the City in conjunction with Faber. During the evening there were readings, talks, and discussion exploring ways in which Plath used her life in her work, as well as the significance of the recently published two volumes of Collected Letters edited by Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil. Erica Wagner chaired the evening, with a talk by the poet Mona Arshi about how Plath influenced her own development as a writer. Readings from Plath’s letters and poems were given by actor Anna Madeley. Below is a transcript of the talk I gave discussing ways in which Plath drew on her own experiences, such as the personal and domestic, to create poetry with a universal message.
All photography © Kevin Cummins 2019
A Life between the Lines: Sylvia Plath
© Gail Crowther 2019
On the 30 October, 1962, Peter Orr of the British Council asked Sylvia Plath:
ORR: Do your poems tend now to come out of books rather than out of your own life?
Plath replied urgently, and thoughtfully.
PLATH: No, no: I would not say that at all. I think my poems immediately come out of the sensuous and emotional experiences I have, but I must say I cannot sympathise with these cries from the heart that are informed by nothing except a needle or a knife, or whatever it is. I believe that one should be able to control and manipulate experiences, even the most terrifying, like madness, being tortured, this sort of experience, and one should be able to manipulate these experiences with an informed and an intelligent mind. I think that personal experience is very important, but certainly it shouldn’t be a kind of shut-box and mirror looking, narcissistic experience. I believe it should be relevant, and relevant to the larger things, the bigger things such as Hiroshima and Dachau and so on.
Here in the last months of her life, Plath explained how her lived experience appeared in the lines of her work, the blurring of the personal with the political, the desire to be relevant and for her life to be understood outside of the limits of her own biography. As such Plath presents us with a complex tapestry of voices. Through her poems, letters, journals, short stories, articles, novel, and archival documents she unrolls and invites us into considering how her life and our lives fit into the universal. Read together, all genres of her work create an interconnected whole. We see a line from her journal appearing in The Bell Jar, a visit to her father’s grave recounted in a letter becomes transformed into a poem. The more you read Plath, the more you fall into an intricate labyrinth of words, places, events, and you cannot pull them apart. Furthermore she freezes these moments in time; her winter bees are perpetually flying towards the spring, Lady Lazarus is single-handedly taking on patriarchy, Ariel forever gallops towards the red eye of morning, and the poppies in July flicker and flicker and burn.
It is possible, however, to identify certain themes and categories in Plath’s work. We might say she writes about her childhood, or she writes about places and homes. Equally she explores relationships and her role as daughter, mother, wife. We see how her domestic trivialities become immortalised, or her psychological states come to represent something bigger than her merely feeling happy or sad or in love. Yet even these categories themselves are unstable because they seep into each other. Sometimes the only way to stop being overwhelmed is to fall into her work and identify single sources. A poem like ‘The Disquieting Muses’, sweeps up childhood themes as well as place and familial relationships and an impending sense of dread.
In her poem ‘Point Shirley’ the speaker describes encountering the old house of her deceased grandmother; a house holding traces of the past from her childhood growing up by the sea and the shingle. Plath begins the poem by setting the scene in a particular geographical context – the title alone tells us that this is Point Shirley, the furthermost tip of the Winthrop peninsula in Massachusetts. She then conjures the ghost of her grandmother exploring loss, remembrance, forgetting, and a gentle sense of melancholy.
[Anna to read ‘Point Shirley’]
Memories, like relics, rear up from the past. Ghostly washing freezes on a line, a spectral figure battles the nautical elements to keep a clean house against the onslaught of sea and sand. There are echoes of the past here but Plath moves beyond her own encounter to make us think about loss and what we too might leave behind, or what we too encounter when someone we love has gone forever. In ‘Point Shirley,’ one feels the ghostly washing will always be swinging on the line as the “stub-necked eiders” dive into the grey waves.
Within the last year, thanks to Faber, Frieda Hughes, and the editors, we have had access to all known letters written by Plath and this has opened up a new perspective on her creative process, how she used moments from her life, however small or insignificant, to inform her work. We suddenly have the privilege of seeing what her eyes took in and then what her poetical imagination did with that. After moving to Devon in 1961, letter after letter describes her homemaking, buying rugs, painting furniture, choosing red as the colour for her living room, buying a radio from a local electrician. We see from these letters how Plath transformed her domestic space into her work. Her poem ‘The Detective’ depicts a speaker standing listening in an empty room, the barely-disguised living room of Plath’s own home, Court Green, in Devon. The physicality of the room is captured and frozen in time textually: ‘There is no body in the house at all./There is the smell of polish, there are plush carpets./ There is the sunlight, playing its blades,/ Bored hoodlum in a red room/ Where the wireless talks to itself like an elderly relative.’ The echoing mausoleum of the house quivers with spectrality and the reader sees how Plath has merged her domestic and living space with her poetical output. When Plath leaves her blueprint in this way, she creates an indelible watermark that we can scrutinise.
No detail is too small or insignificant because Plath does exactly what she says by making her personal experience relevant to bigger things, the trivialities of her domestic life come to represent something much more significant .
On 25 October, 1962, Plath wrote in a letter ‘I have late poppies, bright red, & blue-purple cornflowers on my desk now…’ Two days later at the same desk, she composed the poem ‘Poppies in October’.
[Anna to read ‘Poppies in October’]
We see how something seemingly inconsequential as a vase of flowers is a starting point. The domestic, living space opens up a discussion for psychological anguish, of loss, and mortality.
What we should not overlook however, is Plath’s sense of fun and humour. Her letters are wry and perceptive. She eye-rolls herself as much as other people. The only surviving journal notes from 1962 are a detailed FBI-style take on her Devonshire neighbours and, in my opinion, some of her best writing. Her encounters with Marjorie, the bank manager’s wife, are legendary. Through various archival sources we know that Plath used these notes to inform her final novel Double Exposure, so the fact that this manuscript still remains missing is even more lamentable. Plath regarded this second novel as much funnier than The Bell Jar and for those of us still recovering from the image of Buddy Willard with his washable underpants around his ankles, we can only hope the manuscript emerges at some point.
What we are privileged to see though, is the genesis of a Plath poem or novel or story emerging from her life, seeping in between the lines of her work and becoming something permanent. In one of her final pieces of prose, called ‘Context’ written in 1962 and commissioned by the London Magazine, Plath with a burst of prescience almost foretold her own legacy:
“Surely the great use of poetry is its pleasure – not its influence as religious or political propaganda. Certain poems and lines of poetry seem as solid and miraculous to me as church altars or the coronation of queens must seem to people who revere quite different images. I am not worried that poems reach relatively few people. As it is, they go surprisingly far – among strangers, around the world, even. Farther than the words of classroom teacher or the prescriptions of a doctor; if they are very lucky, farther than a lifetime.”